Mahsa Amini – a catalyst for change or a sign of worse to come?

‘Mahsa is also my daughter. And all those killed are my children. She died for Mahsa, I love her too, she sacrificed herself for Mahsa, she died for her too.’ These are the words of the mother of TikToker Hadis Najafi, who at age 23 was shot dead by Iranian police while protesting against the country’s hijab mandate. Ms Najafi’s family were denied the right to see her body until days after her death. Authorities ordered them to tell friends and family that she had died of natural causes.  


Similarly, an image of Donya Rad eating breakfast in Tehran without wearing a headscarf recently went viral. According to her sister, Ms Rad has now been transferred to ward 209 of Evin prison, a prison notorious for torture and the imprisonment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. However, her imprisonment has led to thousands of protesters coming out in support, some posting pictures on social media of themselves venturing outside without their headscarves on.


These protests come in the wake of the death of Mahsa Amini, who was detained and killed by morality police on the 16th of September for not wearing a hijab correctly. These protesters are united by a shared outrage at Ms Amini’s death and an opposition to the Tehran government’s hijab mandate. Videos shared through social media platforms show protesters throwing stones and retreating from gunfire, women publicly burning their headscarves, and chants including ‘death to the dictator’.


The lasting effects of these protests are ambiguous.


On the one hand, they appear to be emblematic of a deepening cultural divide between the theocratic government and the broader Iranian public. A survey report published in February 2022 by The Group for Analysing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran (GAMAAN) found that 88% of the Iranian population considered a democratic political system to be either ‘fairly good’ or ‘very good’. In addition, 67% of the population consider ‘having a system governed by religious law’ to be either ‘fairly bad’ or ‘very bad’. A similar study published in 2020 by GAMAAN reported that 60% of the Iranian population claimed not to pray and half reported losing their religion. Significantly, even two years before the current protests, 72% of literate Iranians over 19 disagreed with the government’s hijab mandate.


On the other hand, the government has been uncompromising in its crackdown on the protests. President Ebrahim Raisi has declared that ‘threats to public security’ will not be tolerated and that protesters should be ‘dealt with decisively’. So far, riot police have killed more than fifty protesters, a number which is rapidly rising. Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence purports to have arrested 300 ‘ringleaders’ working for the ‘enemy’, and frequent videos online show Iranian police firing on protestors. Particularly worrying are the government’s plans to implement facial recognition into public transport in order to identify women not conforming to the strict hijab rules. The use of such technology will make attempts at resistance significantly more dangerous.


An intransigent government that reacts violently to its nonconforming citizens leaves little hope for change. However, while Ms Amini’s death was tragic, the enormity of the protests that have followed reveal a shared feeling of injustice across Iran and the world. This feeling will not just go away on its own.


Image: Matt Hrkac on Flickr


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